In April 2007, I spoke with bluegrass banjo icon Earl Scruggs for a profile piece scheduled to run ahead of a Frankfort concert he was to give later that month. The performance was cancelled, as was the story, and the interview was indefinitely shelved.
With Scruggs’s death on Wednesday, I thought it would be appropriate to post at least a partial transcript of that conversation. We talked about Scruggs’ pioneering 3-finger banjo style, his work with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and dobro giant Josh Graves, the electric music he produced with sons Gary, Steve (who died in 1992) and Randy in the Earl Scruggs Revue and a few of the folks, like Kentucky’s own J.D. Crowe, that looked to Scruggs as a major inspiration.
Q: What do you, as a concert performer, get out of playing music live for audiences after 40 years?
A: Oh, that’s my livelihood. When I’m onstage, I’m at home. It’s like going around visiting with friends and neighbors.
Q: Is there any way to measure the role family has played in your music throughout your career and what role it continues to play?
A: Well, it’s a real pleasure to get onstage, especially with Gary. And sometimes Randy will be with us. And it was a thrill to work with my three boys when all three of them were with me.
Q: Can you describe the reaction to the progressive, electrified music you made during the ‘70s with The Earl Scruggs Revue for what was, in those days, a very new form of bluegrass?
A: Oh, yeah. Well, I never did like to do the same thing over and over. I don’t even play the tunes the same way twice. I play them the way I feel at the time I’m doing them. That’s the way I’ve always tried to take a show out. You get professionals to play with you so you don’t have to question what they’re doing. You just turn them loose and get the best out of all of them.
Q: We lost Uncle Josh (Josh Graves) last year. What did he mean to you as a player and as a friend?
A: Oh, he was one of the greatest there ever was. Josh Graves – yeah, boy. He didn’t invent the dobro, but he invented it for our type of music and our type of band.
Q: The same could be said you. Your 3-finger banjo style has long been synonymous with bluegrass tradition.
A: It was a natural thing. I didn’t try to work off any formula at all. It was just the talent that the good Lord put in my hands. And I just went with it. What has helped me a lot has been playing with young musicians – and the professionals, too. When you’re onstage with a group of pickers, you feed off of them. I get inspiration out of playing with different guys. I sure do.
Q: You performed in the region with (Irish music veterans) The Chieftains a few years ago…
A: Boy, they are a great group of people. They’re tremendous, professional players. I really enjoyed working with those guys.
Q: Are surprised by the growth and awareness of bluegrass music throughout your career?
A: Not really. It’s amazing how it’s grown. But I think anything good – and I still think bluegrass music is right on top of everything – is going to stay around, especially if it’s played well.
Q: You have performed to predominantly younger crowds in recent years at festivals like Bonnaroo. It must be rewarding to see your music passed down not only through generations of players but through generations of audiences, as well.
A: Oh, yeah. You have to have a turnover of audiences as well as musicians. You sure do.
Q: You have numerous disciples of your music all around the country. You have a very strong one here in Central Kentucky in J.D. Crowe…
A: Oh, he’s one of the greatest. I love J.D. I’ve known him since he was knee high to a duck. He’s knows how the music should sound, so he gets in there and digs it out.
Q: Earl Scruggs and Friends (released in 2001) was your first major album in quite awhile. Did you lose interest in recording or did the right projects not come along to interest you?
A: Oh, it’s a different world now from what it was years ago. We used to cut four singles and one or two albums a year. You don’t do that anymore. We do a CD here and there, a few engagements. That’s about it anymore.
Q: To win Grammy Awards for two different versions of Foggy Mountain Breakdown (in 1969 and 2001) would be a milestone for any artist. But such recognition also speaks well to the durability of that song. What initially triggered the idea for that tune?
A: I don’t know. It’s a thing that practically wrote itself. It was just a thing I put together way back in the day. It went over good. A whole lot of musicians like to play it, so we kept it in the show.
Q: How important was your tenure with Bill Monroe to the development of your own musical voice?
A: Oh, it was very important. Yeah. When I wet to work with Bill Monroe, he had a tenor banjo player with him and his band sounded altogether different. It wasn’t as organized as it later was. He had guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass and banjo, and that was a great beginning. But Lester and I and the boys, we started adding the dobro in there.
Q: With Lester Flatt, you took bluegrass – be it through radio or on television – into the homes of people who had likely never heard this music before.
A: I realized what was going on, but really, I had no idea what put us where we were. I do remember everything we did kind of moving us another notch in different directions.
Q: Your wife (and manager, Louise Scruggs, who died in 2006) was integral to your career…
A: She was as important a person as ever was in my life. She was the most active person, male or female, I’ve ever known. She would appreciate what we were doing on that day but she was always looking forward to what we could do tomorrow.
Q: Growing up North Carolina, was music and string music plentiful and available to you?
A: No. When I was growing up, I was the only banjo picker around. Well, there were two or three others. But they were all senior to me. They were farmers who played a little during the winter months when they weren’t in the fields. Well, when I came along, radio began to get popular. And I just couldn’t stay out of it. So I came to Nashville and I’ve been to just about every other part of the world since then.
Q: Is bluegrass in a healthy state today?
A: You know, it could be and it could not be. I don’t hear a lot of radio, period. But I what I hear of it on the radio, I enjoy.
Q: Realizing there is still more music ahead for you, how would you describe the artistic life you have enjoyed so far?
A: I couldn’t ask for anything better. My health has been good all the way. I’ve had good support. My boys – Gary, Randy and Steve – and all the members of the bands that have worked with me… I just couldn’t for ask for a better life than the one I’ve had.